It’s the battle of the Meuse-Argonne, in the autumn of 1918. Two of my great-grandfathers are there: one a young man in the Massachusetts infantry, hardly more than a boy, and the other, a New Yorker approaching middle age, in the engineering corp. There’s mud, rats, and chlorine gas. Death-filled wasteland would probably be an understatement.
Some of the relics still remain; bits and pieces. An old helmet and a gas mask with wide glass eyes, an envelope of photos showing the war-torn French countryside…the haunting photo in the back of the envelope that just shows a corpse lying on the side of the road. The old whispers of shell shock and trauma, of someone being institutionalized. Some of it remains, and so much of it is conjecture, guesses from the rumors we’ve heard.
This week I ended up watching two very thematically similar films that were made ninety years apart. Famous silent film director King Vidor’s 1925 classic The Big Parade, and a historical drama from just two years ago, 2014’s A Testament of Youth, based on the 1933 memoirs of pacifist Vera Brittain. It was a bit of a coincidence that I happened upon both of these movies only about a week apart, and it’s interesting to examine them both in contrast to each other.
The Big Parade was made less than a decade after the war ended, back when the scars were all still very visible. It is important to note that it is an American-made film, and that the American experience in the first world war is unique in that we did not suffer nearly as much losses at the European countries involved, having only been involved for the last year or so. This film shows a more American version of the war’s consequences: it’s more on an individual scale than a crippling loss for the entire nation, as portrayed in European films such a Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930.
The Big Parade tells the story of Jim, the spoiled son of an industrialist who goes to war simply to get his parents to stop nagging him about how useless and unproductive he is. He is pressured into joining the armed forces by his friends as well as the American propaganda machine, as a parade sweeps through town as a band plays “Over There” a patriotic song which was federally distributed to bars across the country (and which presidential candidate Donald Trump has disturbingly decided to bring back). Patriotic war songs of the era are played triumphantly throughout the beginning of the film, but as the characters begin to see the horrors of combat, the music becomes distorted-we get versions of “Over There” and “You’re in the Army Now” that sound like the scores to a horror film. It’s a subtle but brilliant effect that criticizes the glorification of war by the government.
The middle part of the film is a bit of a bore, to be honest. Jim is stationed in the French countryside with his army buddies, where they basically screw around and do a bunch of Chaplin-esqe comedy bits, and we develop fondness for Jim’s two closest comrades, Slim and Bull. Then he meets Melisande, a French farm girl, and they fall (somewhat unconvincingly) in love, despite having to talk in sign language the entire time due to the language difference.
The film really kicks off when the boys are finally called to the front-and they’re thrilled, having no idea what really awaits them there. Melisande runs to say goodbye to Jim before he leaves, and she is left alone, kneeling down and sobbing in the dust behind the army trucks. King Vidor loves to visually show the feeling of loneliness-it’s evident in his other work, notably 1928’s The Crowd-and he displays Melisande’s despair brilliantly. In a swarm of excited soldiers, she seems to be the only one truly aware that many of them will not be coming back.
Vidor consistently uses the motif of “big parades” and the parades he shows start out triumphant and gradually become funeral processions. He begins with scenes of armies marching in and awaiting glory, and transitions to lines of the dead being carried out, or swarms of refugees fleeing, or grieving wives, mothers, and children. He demands that we ask ourselves if the glorified parades at the beginning are really worth the tragic ones that follow-and why we keep falling into the trap of warfare that kills our youth again and again.
The absolute best scene in the film is Jim’s first experience with real warfare. The Americans are called in to the front-but to get to the trenches; they have to march through a forest seeming with German snipers hiding in the trees. We see them march in uniform lines as the Vidor focuses on Jim’s face. We see men being shot dead and falling to the ground all around him, and everyone continues to march undisturbed. No one stops to help Jim’s friends who have just been picked off, and they just keep marching like machines, as if nothing has happened. John Gilbert plays the transition brilliantly- he marches in confident, and as men begin to get shot down in such a casual manner, we see the horror and terror appear on Gilbert’s face. This is where the big transition happens.
More great moments happen once the men are in the trenches. Jim’s buddy Slim is shot dead, and Jim completely loses all of his composure, yelling about the uselessness of war over the battlefield, even though it means revealing their location to the Germans. Later on he ends up hiding in a trench with a young German soldier and giving him one last cigarette as he dies. As Jim watches the young boy die, you can see the epiphany light up on Gilbert’s face-he realizes that the Germans are just innocent young kids like themselves, and he begins to question why and what they are even fighting for in the first place. Jim ends up having to get a leg amputated, but the film ends on a happy note-he goes back to France to reunite with his beloved Melisande. Of course, unbeknownst to the filmmakers and the audience at the time, another war would soon be looming on the horizon.
It turns out even the real life story of the film is filled with death and tragedy-Renee Adoree, who played Melisande, would lose a battle of her own in a few short years-with tuberculosis. And Karl Dane, who played Slim, Jim’s friend who lost his life on the battlefield, would commit suicide in the thirties, just one of the examples of many silent film stars who became depressed and hopeless after finding their career could not carry over into sound movies.
Testament of Youth may be based on a memoir of a woman who lived through the conflict, but it is translated into film by people living one hundred years after the war started, who see it in a sort of historical vacuum. It chronicles the wartime experiences of Vera Brittain, who would later write about them in her memoir of the same name.
The film tells the story of her relationships with three young men who go off to fight: her brother Edward, and his two friends Victor, and Roland-who she would eventually fall in love with. The film kills the three men off one by one, until-like Melisande in The Big Parade-only Vera is left to remember them.
Vera starts the movie desperate to go to Oxford-she’s a proud “bluestocking” and feminist, and has aspirations to write. But soon those dreams begin to change as her brother and his friends head off to the war. She ends up at Oxford by herself, frustrated about her lack of ability to help with the war effort. Despite the advice of the headmistress, Vera decides to become a nurse-she figures it’s the best way to feel closer to Roland and her brother.
As Vera heads off to France, she gets to witness the horrors of war firsthand. She spends all day tending to the horrific wounds of the English men brought to her-and has a moment similar to Jim’s in The Big Parade where she takes care of a wounded German man and is forced to recognize his humanity.
Vera loses the three young men closest to her one by one-Roland is killed tragically just days before their wedding, and soon after, Victor follows. The worst blow for Vera however, is that after saving her brother Edward’s life from a devastating wound in France, she receives a telegram announcing his death not long after. This is the final straw for Vera, and Alicia Vikander portrays her silent rage and passion beautifully. We see her grudgingly walk through a cheering crowd celebrating the end of the war, silent and furious. She feels a tremendous urge to do something.
And so she does-she stands up and makes an impassioned speech at a debate at Oxford, calling for peace…and little does everyone know that this is the start of the long career of pacifist and feminist writer and activist Vera Brittain.
So what do ninety years do to two films that are essentially preaching the same message? Our understanding of the war has certainly changed our perspectives-Testament of Youth has the advantage of hindsight-we know about the other world war that will follow, and the filmmakers had more concrete historical knowledge on how truly horrific the warfare was-modern film also allows us to show and insinuate more violence. But The Big Parade is fascinating as a historical document-we get to understand the war from the perspective of those who still saw it as an isolated conflict, and who still had the memories and scars fresh in their minds.
I really enjoyed both of these films, and their antiwar messages. I’m also now excited to read Vera Brittain’s memoirs!
So what do you think the passage of time does to art and the messages it preaches? Let me know in the comments!